What Works: Being imperfect doesn’t mean you’re bad, just human

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I broke my Lenten commitment on day one. (Every year, I fast from judging whether beggars are worthy or not — instead of deciding whether each is truly needy, a slacker or con artist, a good street musician or bad, I just give a dollar to anyone asking for money.) On Ash Wednesday, after a difficult day, I trudged right past two people asking for change on my way home, remembering my commitment but in my aggravation willfully denying it. I felt entitled to do the wrong thing because I’d had a hard day. I’m not proud of this, but does it mean I’m a bad person? Does it mean I failed at Lent? No, it means I’m human. The next day, I recommitted and haven’t slipped since.

People enjoy swearing off. And Lent is up there with New Year’s as biggest swearing-off ritual. But all too often the best intentions come up against habit, craving, or just fatigue, the abstainer slips, and then they feel like a failure. Sometimes the self-criticism blurs into self-hatred feeding a downward spiral that takes them to a worse place than if there had been no resolution in the first place.

The missing ingredient is love. All processes that involve self-restraint — whether once a year events like New Years and Lent, specific methods like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, or paradigms like original sin — all must be accompanied by love, a sense of God’s love for us, and a loving attitude towards ourselves. Without love, we are simply “behaving” (or misbehaving) or making some dry calculation of karmic reward and punishment.

A grounded place of love

Love is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about saints’ lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

St. Augustine (my patron saint) famously said, “Love and do what you will.” He means that if your actions are coming from a place of love — a grounded place of harmony with God — then doing the right thing isn’t a struggle. He adds, “let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

As easy as it can be to do the right thing when grounded in love, a person usually can only behave for so long in a state of what is sometimes called “white-knuckling it” — obedience without love — before the mind starts rationalizing giving up and temptations become too attractive. And even if resolve holds for a long time, that doesn’t prove you don’t need love; only that you have a strong will. And that is no life. I’ve been there. I stayed sober for years once without having changed interiorly, without being grounded in God’s love.

This love, this sense of groundedness and connection to God and others, is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about their lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

And that brings us back to St. Augustine again with the terribly misunderstood concept of fallenness, of original sin. So often felt as a condemnation, instead, recognizing your own imperfection can be a comfort. We all fall short. We all get caught up in temptations and turn away from God. This doesn’t mean everyone is evil, as some fire and brimstone types would have it. It means everyone is human. And being given permission to not live up to perfection, but to make mistakes like every other human, is a pretty big load off the shoulders.

Jesus didn’t rebuke people for personal sins. He reserved his anger for hypocrites and those who disgraced the divine through their actions. But to the individual sinner, he said: Welcome, join me; change your ways but for right now, just have a seat. Jesus was radically welcoming and radically accepting. I’m not saying he didn’t find fault with behaviors, but he didn’t deem a person unacceptable when their behavior was. They were still welcome at his table. In fact, like the parable of the lost sheep, he paid more attention to those who needed to hear his message.

So be understanding of others, and especially in this Lenten season, have compassion for yourself. When you struggle with trying to live up to your best intentions, it is simply a reminder of the extent to which you are not running the show. Look at how hard it is for us even to control some silly little Lenten commitment like abstaining from a treat. And that’s OK. We’re only human. Just dust yourself off, ask forgiveness, and try to do better.

How is your Lenten fasting going? Have you learned lessons from struggling with your Lenten fasting, this year or in the past, or with any other time when you failed to meet your own best intentions. Share your experience here in comments. It will help others to know that none of us is perfect.

This column was originally published on March 25, 2011. So far, I’ve maintained my Lenten commitment to give unconditionally to beggars. But I’m sure I’ll slip into judgement and rationalize breaking it soon. Because I’m only human.